In 1632, 18 young nuns at the Ursulines convent in Loudun, France, began showing signs of demonic possession. What began as ghostly visions in the middle of the night would become one of the most contentious and disturbing sensations of the 17th century. The saga dragged on for six years and led to a local priest, Urbain Grandier, being burned at the stake for sorcery (via Encyclopedia.com).
Jeanne des Anges was the mother superior of the convent who, along with a junior nun, claimed to have been visited by the specter of a priest who asked the sisters for help (via The Psychologist). In the weeks and months that followed, things turned even more sinister: The nuns developed marks and bruises on their bodies and fell into fits of laughter and convulsions. Their confessor, a male priest, became convinced that the women had been possessed by demons. Like the Salem witch trials that would occur across the Atlantic later in the same century, the incident — which became known as the “Loudun possessions” — would become infamous. And not just because of the creepiness of the supposed events, but also for the story’s bloody end, which was the result not of supernatural forces but human intervention.
The Loudun possessions: the work of a priest?
According to The Infographics Show, as the behavior of the nuns became more disturbing — the women contorted their bodies, imitating animals and sexual acts forbidden to nuns — the nuns’ confessor confronted them in an attempt to identify the demons inside them. But rather than the name of a demon, Jeanne de Agnes gave the name of a local priest: Urbain Grandier.
Grandier was a controversial figure in the local area: There were rumors that he formed sexual relationships with women in his parish, and that he was the author behind an anonymous essay railing against clerical celibacy, according to The Psychologist. De Agnes had reportedly developed a sexual fascination with Grandier and had invited him to take a post at the convent — a position he declined, much to de Agnes’ frustration. The possessed nuns were subjected to daily exorcisms, which began in private before going public. The exorcisms became a local attraction and turned the public against Grandier, who was put on trial for sorcery.
According to Columbia College, the evidence submitted at the trial included a supposed pact between Grandier and the Devil himself, written in reverse Latin and co-signed by a number of demons. After a period of brutal torture that was unsuccessful in extracting a confession from Grandier, he was publicly burned to death on August 18, 1634. Afterward, the public exorcisms of the nuns continued until 1638, drawing crowds of up to 7,000 (per The Infographics Show).
Religious strife in France meant that possession was taken seriously
It is easy to write off historical instances of mass hysteria as the result of past societies being less rational and more superstitious than we are today. But is it right to assume that everyone in 17th century France was entirely certain that Urbain Grandier had indeed possessed the nuns of the Loudun convent?
According to The Psychologist, the trial of Grandier reached its horrifying and tragic conclusion due to political struggles between the country’s Catholic and Protestant populations. In particular, a decree had been enacted which made it illegal to question the reality of demonic possession — or the legality of a trial concerning it. Therefore, the trial went unchallenged, with fervent Catholics willing Grandier to be found guilty as a legitimizer for Catholic belief.
The Psychologist also diagnoses the social function of the nun’s daily exorcisms by pointing to the autobiography of Jeanne des Anges (pictured above), which outlines the public events in the lexicon of warfare. Specifically, once on stage — and purportedly when the demons revealed themselves — the nuns inevitably turned on the priests who were exorcising them, showering them with abuse and physically attacking them. According to the source, this behavior may have been cathartic, allowing the subjugated women an outlet to rebel against the men who typically had power over them.
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